A Very Brief History of Israeli Leaders Looking Through Covered Binoculars

Both the relative smallness of Israel as well as the relative nearness of its enemies ensure that whenever an Israeli political leader has a crisis-related photo-op, it often includes the leader looking sternly through a pair of binoculars.

Tuesday was one such day. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Israel’s border with Gaza following a surge in violence in Israel and the West Bank in recent weeks. Surveying west from a military outpost, Netanyahu held up a pair of binoculars and told reporters that Gaza is “under control.” The only problem was that the binocular covers were still on.

You might think this to be a minor gaffe—it probably is—but the closed binoculars photo-op gaffe has a surprisingly storied and potent history in Israel.

If you’re not convinced, consider that Netanyahu felt compelled to respond (quite muscularly) to the Israeli daily Yediot, which remarked upon the photo.

Translation: I want to reassure you Yediot, I have some experience with binoculars. (Netanyahu served as a captain in Sayeret Matkal, which is among the most elite units in the Israel Defense Forces.)

Unsurprisingly, his response triggered some criticism. Stav Shaffir, a dovish member of Israel’s Labour party, tweeted back:

I’d like to reassure you, Mr. Prime Minister, that no one ever had a doubt. We have always known that you are, at most, just an observer on the sidelines, never actually acting to improve the situation.

For obvious reasons, national perception of an Israeli leader’s ability to provide security remains a very serious thing. Last month, 71 percent of Israelis registered their disappointment with Netanyahu’s handling of the recent uptick in violence.  

A closed-binoculars moment turned out to be damaging for Amir Peretz, the former Israeli defense minister. Peretz was notably one of the only defense ministers in Israeli history to not have a wealth of military experience. (His three predecessors in the post had been generals.)

In 2006, Israel, led by Peretz and the equally unseasoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, fought a month-long war with Hezbollah that was widely considered to be a stalemate. Peretz’s standing suffered greatly and was made all the more worse when he was photographed here in 2007 watching a training exercise in the Golan Heights.

“The photographer said Peretz raised the capped binoculars three times, nodding as [Israeli Army Chief Gabi] Ashkenazi explained what he was ‘seeing,’” the AP noted at the time. The photo made the cover of a number of Israeli daily papers. A few months later, he was voted out as head of the Labor Party in favor of Ehud Barak, who then became defense minister.

Peretz was ultimately instrumental in bringing Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system into operation. It hardly helped his image. Five years later, as he was about to place third in the Labor Party elections, Peretz bragged to reporters, “I guess I could see more with those closed binoculars than a lot of those generals could see.”

Lastly, here’s Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002 during the Second Intifada:

Perhaps it was the infancy of the Internet at work or just Sharon’s unparalleled and extremely complicated reputation as a military leader, but seemingly little was said about this picture.